Pirita Näkkäläjärvi: Bringing Sámi culture to the House of European History

Photograph of a panel with three people on stage. On the wall is a screen with text that reads. Pirita Näkkäläjärvi. Drawing of national borders split Samiland into four and partitioned the Sami people among the states of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway.

My objective was clear: I wanted to tell the people coming to listen to me about the Sámi people and Sámi culture.

The House of European History’s lack of exhibits and content about the Sámi people did not disturb me. During the introductory tour, I had bumped into several exhibits that I could use to highlight a Sámi perspective and world view to my visitors.

One people separated by the borders of four nation states.

I began my tour at the exhibition’s display of maps. The Sámi are the European Union’s only recognised indigenous people. Yet, their territory, a region known as Sápmi, is shown scattered across the borders drawn on the museum’s maps. These borders have separated the Sámi people into four nation states: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia.

Despite this, we can be considered a very European people in the sense that we try to live as one people as unhindered as possible by the borders that have been drawn through our land. We cross borders to go to work, visit relatives and come together at festivals. Scattered across four countries, Sámi people are bound by their shared language, culture, customs and history.

“The gákti I am wearing is our most significant monument”      

The second stop on my tour is in front of exhibits of European mythology. I draw attention to the statues that are on display.

“When you visit our museums, you won’t find any statues. Part of our culture involves leaving as few traces as possible in nature, and taking only what we need. Instead of erecting statues, the traditional gákti I am wearing is our most significant monument. It is also an important part of our identity and acts as an entire communication system letting a fellow Sámi know where I am from, my marital status and what kind of occasion I am going to.”

This is only the second stop on our tour, but already my group is growing excited. They ask questions about my gákti, about the Sámi language and whether the Sámi receive European support for their ventures. The group’s excitement is palpable and infectious. I can feel the inquisitive group drawing closer and closer to me with each question.

This is a familiar reaction. Almost nothing is taught in schools about the Sami and Sami people are mostly invisible in society and the mainstream media.

“There is a need for these kinds of tours, not only in Brussels but also in Finland and other Nordic countries”, I reflect.

Settler colonialism and craniometry

Although the House of European History has no exhibits about the Sámi people, many historical turning points and stains on European history also relate to the Sámi. Near the slave shackles shown at the start of the exhibition, I talk about the fact that the Sámi too have experienced colonialism. It is not the type of colonialism that, for example, certain colonies in Africa or Asia experienced. Sámi territory was colonised through settler colonialism. The colonising ideology was nonetheless the same and based on finding a people considered less civilised and less valued, and using that to justify stealing their natural resources.

Settler colonialism is upheld through legislation, the church and education. Although societies in the Nordic countries are made up of Sámi and other majority populations, they are built solely on the terms of the majority populations. Settler colonialism is ongoing and continues to affect societal structures in the Nordic countries.

In front of an old photograph of an incidence of cranial measuring taken in Africa, I share that this picture could easily have been taken in the Sámi region in the 1930s. The Sámi too were subjected to studies of evolutionary biology and were measured using the same craniometry instruments pictured here. Many people on the tour are familiar with this part of Sámi history through the film ‘Sameblod’, or ‘Sami Blood’ in English. Telling the story of Sámi film director Amanda Kernell’s grandmother, this film has been shown internationally and has won awards in Europe. Without blame, it tells the heart-rending story of a Sámi girl living in the 1930s who encounters discrimination, humiliation and hatred.

The Sámi do not have their own representatives in national or European parliaments

The second last stop on my tour is in front of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. The UN is a critical organisation for the Sámi, who do not have their own representatives in national governments or the European parliament. The Sámi are in a key position to improve the status of indigenous peoples in international justice via the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and promote indigenous nations in the UN’s permanent forums for indigenous nations.

Still, to have even a single representative in national governments or the European parliament would be significant. A Sámi representative would be a clear go-to-person, through whom fact-based, trustworthy and current information about the Sami people could be spread to fellow parliamentary representatives.

 “I learnt more in 45 minutes than in 50 years of life”

I concluded my time as a tour guide in front of a wall of class photographs. All the challenges of the Sámi people arise from the fact that no one knows about us – even the acclaimed Finnish school system manages to teach hardly anything about the Sámi. It would be of the utmost importance to include teaching about the Sámi at every grade level, deepening and broadening this knowledge every year. Only in this way can the legal status of the Sámi be improved.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead a tour about the Sámi at the House of European History. The best response came from a Finnish gentleman who was visiting Brussels.

He summed up the experience saying: “I learnt more about the Sámi in 45 minutes than in my entire 50 years of life. Ironically, I had to travel all the way to Brussels for this to happen”.

Now here would be a challenge for the House of European History: by adding a section about the Sámi to the central exhibition, the museum could act as a vital source of information on the EU’s only recognised indigenous people.

Photograph of a woman dressed in traditional Sami clothing, looking into the camera and smiling.
Pirita Näkkäläjärvi

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi is the 2017 Sami of the Year. She works as a strategy consultant at PwC Strategy& in Helsinki. She previously worked as head of Yle Sápmi in Inari, as head of corporate acquisitions at Nokia and as an investment bank analyst at Merrill Lynch in London. Pirita holds an Msc Media and Communications degree from the London School of Economics and a Masters of Business Administration degree from the Helsinki School of Economics.